Like many people in my generation, I first associated tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity, with the pushke -- the little metal box given out in Hebrew school, rusting on my parents' windowsill. I learned in the 1950s that Jews were supposed to collect pennies in the pushke to plant trees in Israel. There was no passion or intensity embedded in this ritual; no real understanding of the values or texts behind this seemingly strange act of generosity; and no opportunity to innovate. It was just something Jews did.
The truth is, no one in my family talked much about giving money; they talked about giving time. My parents and grandparents devoted untold hours to serving on the boards of local Federation agencies -- an ethic that has deeply informed my own professional and personal commitments.
But, of course, time isn't the only marker of giving. Money matters, too. It matters a lot. Money defines our needs, our wants and our luxuries. It shapes our responsibilities and informs our life choices. Subsequently, I discovered that my parents were, in fact, giving money -- but it was apparently not a subject for "polite" conversation.
My parents' perception was misguided. We need to talk about money and it shouldn't be considered "taboo."
About 15 years ago, I decided that I wanted to raise my grandchildren's consciousness about money early on in their lives. Beginning on their ninth birthdays, my husband and I started giving each grandchild $100 to donate to causes or organizations of their choice during the year. For me, the cause itself -- be it animal rights, marriage equality, children's mental health or ending genocide in Darfur -- is less important than the questions and values that inform their decisions. Which issues do they care about and why? How do they determine who needs their money most?
American Jewish World Service's Where Do You Give? initiative has pushed these questions into the Jewish communal spotlight to spark a national conversation about giving in the 21st century.
Central to Where Do You Give? is a national competition that called upon artists to translate tzedakah's meaning into a compelling, relevant design -- far beyond the pushke on the windowsill.
AJWS received dozens of amazing submissions for the competition and I, along with our distinguished panel of judges, have now narrowed them down to nine finalists.
Many of the submissions were conceived in an effort to cut through the morass of what people look at every day and focus their attentions on giving. One entry is a large public installation that cleverly plays with the meaning of the word "change" and another seeks to elevate the grocery shopping experience so that people can understand and engage with issues related to their everyday purchases.
But I particularly love the submissions that seem designed to get people together to have these discussions -- whether it is through a community baking project, computer game or an interactive pixel map.
Looking at these pieces of art gives me great hope that a new generation of globally conscious designers are celebrating the critical role that tzedakah plays in today's world and that the next generation of Jews will both give and talk about giving. Working for justice depends on re-imagining the possibilities for this work. It requires that we take a good, hard look at the values that animate our philanthropic choices.
AJWS will announce the Where Do You Give? grand prize winners on May 15.